The Stand's Kenny O'Brien on St Andrew Square

The Stand's St Andrew Square events made the area a Festival hub, but are now thwarted by the square's corporate owners. For our comedy and ethics column, The Stand's director Kenny O'Brien considers the implications this has for the Fringe

Feature by Kenny O'Brien | 19 May 2017
  • St Andrews Square, Edinburgh

Given recent events, I was somewhat surprised to find this quote still displayed on Standard Life’s website:

'Every August a tidal wave of artistry, creativity and full blown entertainment sweeps across the city... Transforming its streets, courtyards, parks, theatres, pubs and cafes into one giant performance venue... Here at Standard Life, we're always full of excitement and anticipation whenever August comes around.'

I find this strangely at odds with their decision to cancel our agreement to run a Fringe venue in St Andrew Square.

Edinburgh is defined by its festivals. Almost everybody wants lots of vibrant cultural activities, whether for pleasure, leisure or business, but there's a nimbyist reluctance to put up with the disturbance that comes with them, or to make allowances so that more can happen.

While refurbished by the council and managed by Essential Edinburgh, St Andrew Square is owned by the property owners – now mostly Standard Life.

Despite our events' popularity and success, despite months of wrangling with intermediaries, the owners won't condescend to a conversation. Not only can we not use the Square, we can't find any council-controlled space nearby to relocate to. As well as disrupting our Fringe programming, and disappointing many acts who have enjoyed performing in the Square over the past two years, this decision also has an effect on the many staff members and traders who also made it their Fringe base. But apparently trying to save all these jobs (proper paid jobs, not 'volunteers') would be too disruptive for some of the concerns nearby, this year. And this year ought to be a bumper year with various anniversaries to celebrate.

Our programme will be strong as always: as a venue that comedians know and trust, we punch above our weight, but there are acts who don’t trade on their name who need a population of fringe-goers nearby to tempt in. This doesn't only create problems for The Stand. Venues concentrate around the vacant spaces of the university in recess. This is now to such an extent that anyone could be forgiven for thinking that's the whole Fringe. It gets harder to coax punters to the other side of Princes Street. As one asked me in York Place a few years back: "Why do we have to walk all the way over here from the Fringe?"

To truly describe Edinburgh as a festival city, surely the festivals should be reasonably equally represented across the city centre and further afield? Corralling into what space is available will be inevitable if there are fewer spaces, but those focal hubs have a duty to ensure that peripheral venues get a look-in. Edinburghers enjoy the programming and local businesses get an uplift in trade: resentment will grow if money is just being hoovered up for a one-way trip to London.

The city centre isn’t too big; it's mostly walkable and the Fringe ought not to seem to end at The Mound. We built in the Square to counterbalance the focal density of the southside, so the benefit of the Fringe could be felt more broadly across town. The council and city management were happy with it; punters, acts and promoters all loved it. A business which praises it killed it.

As a major sponsor of the International Festival, it’s possible they don't consider Fringe arts to be worthwhile. I mean, surely if it was good art it would already have public funding and not need to sell tickets, food and beer to make ends meet? Or maybe they don't think it classy enough for their plans to uber-gentrify the neighbourhood?

Will we soon be treated to a Standard Life commercial masquerading as EIF sponsorship in St Andrew Square? Maybe. It's their garden and they decide what happens there. Neither you, me, local venues, bars, businesses, the Fringe Society or the elected council have much of a say in it.